Staying Motivated After a Major Achievement

by Ron Friedman, Ph.D.

In 1993, after leading his country to an Olympic gold medal, winning his third NBA championship, and scoring more points than any player in the league for a seventh consecutive season, Michael Jordan announced his retirement from basketball. He was 30 years old.

“I just needed to change,” Jordan would later recount. The regular season was just weeks away and he was finding it impossible to get motivated. “I was getting tired of the same old activity and routine and I didn’t feel all the same appreciation that I had felt before and it was tiresome.”

Jordan’s sentiments were recently echoed by another prominent high achiever. In a November interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Jon Stewart made the following remark about returning to the routine of The Daily Show after directing his first film. “I don’t know that there will ever be anything that I will ever be as well suited for as this show,” said Stewart, whose contract to host the show expires later this year. “That being said, I think there are moments when you realize that that’s not enough anymore, or that maybe it’s time for some discomfort.”

Many of us have experienced some of the same feelings after completing a major project, or winning a big sale, or making a crucial presentation to the board. For months or weeks you were ruthlessly focused on a single, herculean undertaking. And then inevitably, that assignment is done.

When we think about achieving a major goal, we picture the exhilaration of reaching new heights. What we often fail to anticipate, however, is that once we’ve scaled that mountain, it can be surprisingly chilly on the other side. After a period of massive productivity we have to revert back to life as usual and settle back into an established workplace routine.

It’s a lot harder than it looks.

For one thing, it’s because of the emotional letdown of going from an exciting, challenging, or pressure-filled situation to one that’s considerably less demanding. High-stress situations and the adrenaline rush they produce can be addictive. When the constant sense of urgency we’ve adapted to comes to an abrupt halt, we experience withdrawal.

In many cases, reverting back to a predictable routine also means the work is no longer as stimulating. To be fully engaged, we need to experience an ongoing sense of growth on the job. At no point is the gap between rapid learning and intolerable stagnation more prominent than after a period of intense professional development.

But perhaps the biggest reason we have a hard time motivating ourselves after a major success is that we fail to recognize the symptoms of burnout.

Mastering new challenges involves an outpouring of mental, emotional, and physical effort. Sustaining that effort over an extended period of time depletes your energy. Burnout can happen when the amount of energy required consistently exceeds the amount of energy you have available.

But here’s the thing we often miss: unlike exhaustion, burnout can be surprisingly hard to detect. You won’t find any glaring markers. The symptoms are subtle. You might notice yourself taking a few extra minutes in the morning to get out of bed. Or delaying important decisions. Or feeling a bit more cynical about your job.

Even mental health experts whose job it is to identify these symptoms struggle recognizing their own burnout. In part, it’s because of this unfortunate fact: burnout damages your ability to recognize the symptoms of burnout.

We’re all susceptible to burnout, especially in the wake of tackling difficult challenges. That doesn’t mean, however, that inefficiency, cynicism, and procrastination must necessarily follow every major success. Here are some adjustments worth considering the next time you transition from a big win back to your normal routine.

Recognize that your job is about to get more difficult. A common mistake we make after succeeding at a major challenge is having unrealistic expectations about the work that follows. After a major outpouring of effort, your energy stock is likely to be depleted, which makes it hard to maintain your concentration. Tasks that may have required little exertion in the past suddenly demand a lot more of you. Adjusting your expectations is important because it helps minimize the self-blame that often accompanies and exacerbates burnout.

Separate thinking from doing. If your job is like most, it’s rare for you to have the opportunity to savor your successes for very long. In fact, there’s probably an enormous backlog of work that accumulated while you were seeing your project out the door, because the rest of your job didn’t stand still during that time.

While you may feel tempted to immediately dive in, doing so is generally not in your best interest. When we’re depleted we find it harder to distinguish tasks that are important from those that simply feel urgent. It’s at this point that we’re at our most vulnerable to doing busywork.

Carve out a few hours outside of the office to list, clarify, and prioritize your tasks. A focused strategy session will help declutter your mind and ensure that you devote the limited energy you have to activities that have value. The sense of direction is itself energizing, while preventing you from falling prey to easily-accomplishable tasks with limited worth.

Unapologetically restock your energy. To achieve top performance the human body requires periods of recovery. Laboring when our physical and cognitive resources are depleted yields low quality work and makes engagement more difficult.

When taking extended time off after a big win is not an option, integrating recovery into your day is especially valuable. Schedule intermissions onto your calendar and use them to take a walk. Have lunch away from your computer. For a few days, turn off your work email after hours, or better yet, when you arrive home, leave your phone in a different room.

What should you do at home to replenish your energy? A 2014 Journal of Occupation Health Psychology article offers clues. Within the study, psychologists compared how different after-work activities affect employees’ recovery from burnout. While many of us assume that passive, relaxing activities are best, researchers found evidence that engaging in exercise and social interaction can be even more revitalizing.

The lesson: slowing down isn’t the only way of filling up your tank. Sometimes renewal requires accelerating in a different direction. Instead of just flipping on the TV and vegging out, consider calling your friends and suggesting a game of tennis.

Find your next mastery goal. To be at our most engaged, we require experiences that grow our competence. Leadership consultant Jim Collins argues that organizations need a “big hairy audacious goal” to achieve great things. The same can be said for employees.

If you’re aiming to perform at your best, you need something new to be excited about. Building time into your routine to explore new ideas, for example, by reading before work or setting aside 15 minutes after lunch to review industry blogs, helps foster a sense of growth even when the tasks you’re working on are predictable.

Another method of growing on the job: mentoring. We tend to think of mentoring as a means of educating others and improving their performance. But new studies indicate that in many cases, it’s the mentor who reaps the greatest benefit, especially when it comes to mitigating perceptions of having reached a “career plateau.”

How does mentoring help? Research suggests mentoring prevents job monotony and enhances the way we look at our jobs. It contributes to the perceived meaning we derive from our work. In so doing, mentoring helps us find growth in new ways, mitigating emotional exhaustion.

Ultimately, how you approach your work in the days and weeks following a big win can be just as critical to your long-term success as the achievement itself. By anticipating and proactively addressing a depleted mental and physical state, you’re more apt to turn an isolated victory into a consistent winning streak.


To see the original article at Harvard Business Review, click here.

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